A Portrait of Colette as a Journalist

Colette in 1932

Colette in 1932, press photograph. Source: Gallica BnF

Shoddy journalistic stuff. That’s how Colette herself described the newspaper columns she wrote for Le Matin during the First World War. She was being a bit harsh. Perhaps because she preferred to be known for her literary work. Perhaps because she always had a tendency to downplay anything she wrote. But the fact was that she was a journalist. And she was good at it. Whether she liked it or not. I have been wanting to do a post on Colette and journalism for a while now. And since an academic article I wrote on her and the Belle Époque press was published last week this seemed like a good time for it. Somewhere in between her other writing, her theatre career and just living her life, Colette found the time to write an overwhelming amount of journalism. She tackled all sorts of subjects: war, crime, boxing, fashion, film, theatre, dieting. Her journalistic career spanned nearly half a century, starting in the early 1900’s and lasting almost up until her death in 1954. Her articles were published everywhere, cultural and literary periodicals, women’s magazines, fashion magazines, popular daily newspapers. Yet strangely enough very little has been said or written about her journalism.  Shortly before the First World War Colette’s journalistic career received a real boost when she started to work for one of the biggest players in the French newspaper world, Le Matin. By 1913 Le Matin had become the second largest paper in France after Le Petit Parisien, selling almost a million copies a day. Colette was asked to write a weekly column entitled ‘Le journal de Colette.’ Colette’s name is hardly ever mentioned among the names of journalists who documented the war. Yet her articles on the First World War were deemed interesting enough at the time to be published. They appeared in a collection entitled Les Heures longues in 1917. The collection received good reviews, even though Colette herself called it ‘shoddy journalistic stuff.’ [1] During the war she travelled to Verdun, visiting her then husband who was in the army and witnessed the devastation first-hand. It wasn’t her style to write about the strategies or politics of war. Partly because it didn’t fit her writing, partly because it wasn’t very easy for any woman journalist to write about ‘hard news’ to begin with. But Colette wrote about the human cost of war, or the effects it had on those who stayed behind, women, children. Such as in the piece below from January 1915 titled ‘children among the ruins.’

Le Journal de Colette

‘Les enfants dans les ruines’ (Children among the ruins), Le Journal de Colette, Le Matin, 6 January 1915. Source: Gallica/BnF.

In 1914 Colette had said about her employment as a journalist for Le Matin: ‘il faut vivre’ (one has to make a living).[2]  It’s true that she needed the regular income but Colette enjoyed the journalistic world, a world she would often reminisce about in her novels and stories. She loved how she had been one of the very first women to work as a court reporter for example. In 1933, when explaining her recent return to journalism, Colette gave a vivid description of her first impressions of the newspaper world in the 1890’s:

Where does this urge of mine come from. From way back when, when I was in my twenties. From my silent years, when I sat quietly observing Fouquier, Mendès, Courteline and Sarcey. From the former Écho de Paris, the Cocarde, the old Intransigeant…From the Rue du Croissant, the dirty editorial offices, where the gas made it impossible to breath. From the smell of ink, of men, of tobacco, damp mud and beer…[3]

If you would like to read more about Colette in the wider context of the Belle Époque press – and don’t mind academic writing too much- you can find my article in French Cultural Studies here. If you don’t have library access not to worry. A draft uncorrected version of that article can also be found on my Academia page. Follow the link in the About section above.

Better yet, if you want to read Colette’s original articles in Le Matin (provided you can read French), you can search for them here on Gallica. Luckily, digitalisation of newspapers and periodicals means that Colette’s journalistic writing is becoming more easily available. Let’s hope that will also spark a renewed interest in her journalistic work.

Le Matin

The front page of Le Matin on 6 January 1915. Colette’s column can be found on page 4, the last page. Most newspapers only had 4 pages at the time. Source: Gallica/BnF

NOTES

[1]‘pauvres choses journalistiques’ (letter to Francis Carco, July 1918) [2]Letter to Christiane Mendelys, 20 August 1914, cited in: Colette, Lettres de la vagabonde. Paris, Flammarion,1961, 107. [3]  D’ou me vient cette tentation? De très loin, de ma vingtième année. D’un temps silencieux ou, silencieuse, je contemplai. De l’ancien Écho de Paris, de la Cocarde, du vieil Intransigeant…De la rue du Croissant, des salles de rédaction souillées, irrespirable, du gaz vert. De l’odeur d’encre, d’hommes, de gros tabac, de boue mouillée et de bière..Le Journal de Colette: On ne redevient pas journaliste’, La République, 15 December 1933. Cited in: Gerard Bonal and Frederic Maget (ed.), Colette journaliste. Chroniques et reportages 1893-1955, Seuil, 2010, 35. This book is, apart from articles in the Cahiers Colette, the only recent publication to focus on her journalism. Translation done in haste by me.

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Women in bed with snakes and other news. The year 1900 in Le Petit Parisien’s illustrated supplement.

 

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Snakes: ‘Why is no one actually looking at us?’

‘A difficult arrest’ is the understated subtitle of this slightly farcical cover of Le Petit Parisien‘s literary illustrated supplement from 25 February 1900. Despite the seven snakes crawling out of her bed, the woman seems more preoccupied with adjusting her hair and striking a pose. She also doesn’t really seem to notice the people standing in her bedroom door. Was the illustrator just not very good at drawing people’s expressions? What is going on here?

The weekly, Sunday illustrated supplements of Le Petit Parisien – and other popular newspapers – were known for their sensational, visual representations of currents events and fait divers. These were the days before photography became widely used in newspapers so illustrators could let their imaginations run wild. And they did. The covers had to be eye-catching and action packed to draw the attention of potential buyers. The articles inside were often a lot less sensational and more balanced, but the cover drawings were basically the 1900 version of click-bait. Obviously it worked, because they managed to catch my attention 114 years later. Check out the covers from 1900 and other years here on Gallica.

Even though there is some gruesome violence pictured in many of them, there is a very odd, emotionless distance in these drawings as well as in the expressions of the people pictured. Even when an individual is in the midst of being murdered. Is this due to poor artistic skills or was this done to avoid too much realism? Dehumanised violence for sensitive viewers? In any case, some truly horrible events end up looking very staged and artificial, if not unintentionally comical. At least I hope it was unintentional.

murder of a guardian of the peace

‘I am not going to stop arresting this man just because there is a knife stuck in my head’

 

murders, accidents, disasters

More murders, accidents and disasters

In between all these horrors, when there were no freak events to report, other things happened as well in 1900: a horse getting ready for some parade, the fire brigade getting an electric car, another horse at a race with a lot of flag waving, the president at a very important ceremony, 6 officers with bicycles protecting 3 French citizens, a laboratory being opened. The underlying message of these rather boring events is clear. Look how wonderful the French Republic is: just waving some flags, having fun parades, making scientific discoveries, with non-threatening officers taking care of citizens.

Other things that also happened

Things that also happened and made the government look good.

And then there were actual historical events happening in far away places: the Boer war, a bit of French colonial expansion and fighting in Africa, Europeans being attacked by angry Chinese rebels, friendly foreign imperial rulers who were supportive of France.

Meanwhile far away...

Meanwhile far away…important historical events were taking place. The emphasis is of course on the bravery of France and its foreign allies.

Back to the most important event of the year though: the female snake charmer. I was of course curious to find out who she was. Medusa reincarnated? Just a woman with an unfortunate choice of pets? Well, neither really. Her name was, depending on the newspaper, either Zalemma Keardy or Neardy. But who cares about futile facts when there is a juicy story to be told. Apparently this 24 year old Swedish woman claimed to be a snake charmer, but was in reality a swindler with an international arrest warrant. The police visited her at her Paris hotel room where they found her asleep in between her snakes. She threatened the officers, but of course the courageous French detective was not afraid of her snakes. A brave man. According to newspaper articles Zalemma ended up in the Saint-Lazare prison. I have no idea what happened to the poor snakes or what happened to her, but the story was picked up by newspapers everywhere. Below you can see how the same story was represented in the illustrated Sunday edition of regional newspaper L’Express de Lyon (Source: BM de Lyon). Le Petit Dauphinois used the same cover illustration as you can see here.

So what is the overall sentiment in 1900 according to these covers? Mostly a bit of scare-mongering mixed with some human interest, foreign news and a dose of chauvinism. Not just in Le Petit Parisien, but also in the regional papers. Dangers are obviously everywhere: criminals, scary foreigners, nature. Luckily brave police officers, soldiers and other heroes are busy trying to protect French citizens from harm everywhere in the world. And it’s probably best to buy illustrated supplements to read all about it.

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‘Laugh all you want, scary foreign woman, but your snakes are no match for the French Tricolour I have in my hand!’